A Window on Reform ; the Catholic Lay Group, Voice of the Faithful, Now One Year Old, Is Refining Its Message of Change amid Sharp Controversy over Its Role

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It was a year ago this month that Voice of the Faithful was born in suburban Boston, as Catholics gathered to share their hurt and outrage over mounting revelations of clergy sexual abuse. Voice has since gained national and international prominence as a lay organization seeking to reshape a church culture it feels is at the root of the crisis.

In the process, it has stirred sharp controversy - among the hierarchy and other Catholics - over what kind of change it has in mind. Yet it continues to strike a responsive chord among Catholics across the US. The grass-roots group is growing rapidly in perhaps the most significant way - in local parishes, from Long Island, New York, to Nashville, Tenn., to Santa Barbara, Calif.

"Three months ago we had about

60 chapters, and now we are up to about 140," says Jim Post, the Boston University professor who is Voice president. "We're adding five to 10 a week."

Bringing about change in the Catholic church, however, means dialogue with the hierarchy, and in that, the group has often been stymied. Some bishops clearly see them as confrontational and are wary of their intentions; eight have banned local parish Voice members from meeting on church property. When issuing his ban last fall, Archbishop John Myers of Newark, N.J., went so far as to call Voice "antichurch and, ultimately, anti-Catholic."

About a dozen other bishops, however, have held sessions with local chapters, Dr. Post says.

To many US Catholics, this is a moment of opportunity for the church - a time to move beyond the passive "pray, pay, and obey" attitude toward parishioners to embrace their talents and expertise in parish and diocesan decisionmaking. The mismanagement of the clergy-abuse crisis, they say, shows unprecedented need for greater openness, participation, and accountability.

But Voice faces a stark reality - Catholic lay movements created outside the institutional structure of the church have a poor historical record in spurring reform. And its founders, though loyal Catholics long active in parish work, ran into trouble early on with revolutionary language calling for a "Continental Congress" to counterbalance the hierarchy. Voice is now defining a more moderate strategy for its most controversial goal - to shape structural change in the church.

Still, there are those who question the approach and claim they have a hidden agenda to change church doctrine. A small group of traditional Catholics in Boston have formed Faithful Voice to counter Voice of the Faithful's work, and set up a website "to expose the underpinnings" of Voice, which they assert is made up of "cafeteria Catholics" who hold heretical views.

Deal Hudson, editor of Crisis, a conservative Catholic magazine, is perhaps their most vocal critic. "There is certainly a place for a group like Voice, but it would have to leave behind all the dissent being spread through its events and chapters," he says.

Despite the group's statement that it seeks no change in church doctrines, Mr. Hudson insists Voice wants to do away with celibacy and modify church teachings on sexuality. That is clear, he says, because chapters regularly invite Catholic theologians to speak who have such views. "I'm keeping track of this all over the country - I get reports on a weekly basis," he adds.

Voice members say church historians and theologians are invited as part of the process of educating themselves on canon law, church history and teachings as a basis for lay involvement.

"We have members from a broad spectrum but are committed to a centrist philosophy," says Post. "We keep the three goals squarely in front of us and are what we say we are: Catholics who love the church and are determined to make a difference."

Hudson says he agrees with them on the need for more lay expertise in management, finances, and communications. …